When you have a child with autism, there are educational and support options available, and you have to decide what’s right for your child and your family.
There are some facilities that are therapeutic living environments with 24-hour care and treatment services for children with autism spectrum disorder, but most programs are much different from these.
A child might not participate in a residential program but could need more educational support than a standard public school environment offers. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for kids with autism.
The following are some of the things parents should know about available options.
Understanding the Challenges
Before you can decide on a specific education or support option for your child, you have to know more about what their challenges are.
For example, for kids with a sensory processing disorder, schools can be difficult. There are always loud noises, strong smells, and things like fluorescent lights. This can create challenges if your child has autism.
Another issue to address is emotional regulation. Your child may not react well to what’s required of them in a traditional classroom environment.
A third factor is intellectual capabilities, with autistic students having a wide variety of capabilities.
Finally, social skills that would otherwise be natural to people who are neurotypical can be confusing to a child with autism.
What Are the Options?
There are different options for students with autism. One is a general education classroom or maybe a resource or special education classroom. There are also autism-only settings.
Some children with autism will thrive being in what would be considered an inclusive class, while others don’t. It depends on your child.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA in the U.S., school districts are required to provide the Least Restrictive Environment for their child’s education. The district has to consider inclusion options before they place a child in a more specialized setting. It could be that you prefer a specialized setting, in which case it could be up to you to prove that the more inclusive setting isn’t working for your child.
Children with autism will often qualify for a 504 plan or individualized education plan (IEP), allowing for accommodations in the classroom. With that being said, having an autism diagnosis doesn’t automatically qualify your child for accommodations.
A team will determine what level of support your child might need in a public school environment.
Inclusion is a relatively new term, and it replaces the older term, which was mainstreaming. Inclusion describes an educational environment where a child may receive minimal additional support. There might be some accommodations, but overall the child would be expected to participate in the classroom and behave appropriately.
Another level of education is inclusion with support, in which case a child follows their IEP or 504 plan. It could include an aide, modified social groups, and an adapted curriculum.
Special education could be a public school option if a child has autism which includes learning disabilities if the teacher has experience teaching in these areas.
Larger school districts may offer what is known as autistic support classrooms. These are specifically designed to meet the needs of autistic students, and they’re staffed by teachers trained in both education and autism. These are usually very small classes, with a high ratio of adults to children. They can include social skills and speech training, and they might use applied behavioral analysis techniques or ABA. ABA techniques help children with autism learn how to behave like neurotypical children.
It should be noted that ABA techniques are controversial. Some people worry that this compliance training coerces compliance and is manipulative.
Private schools are also excellent education options for families who have a child with autism, particularly special private schools. Increasingly, there are specialized private schools focusing on educating children with autism exclusively. There are both day and boarding school options.
A specialized school might be appropriate for a child who’s profoundly autistic and might not thrive in a different setting or who isn’t happy in a neurotypical setting.
Everyone on the staff understands autism, and these facilities can offer a lot of therapeutic resources onsite.
The downside of specialized schools that are private is that they can be expensive. You might be able to convince your school district to approve a private school placement for your child, but this isn’t easy.
Finally, homeschooling can be another option, but this isn’t always feasible because it requires that you stay home with your child. If you’re a two-income family, you may not be able to make this happen, but at least you can explore all of your options to make the right choice for your child and family.